Skip Navigation Links The Library of Congress >> Researchers
Rare Book & Special Collections Reading Room (Library of Congress)
  Home >> Digitized Rare Books >> My Cookery Books

My Cookery Books by Elizabeth Robins Pennell

- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- The Bibliography


E. D. J.
Feb. 26.13


IT is not given to everyone to be a collector of fine books and rare first editions. The prizes are reserved for the millionaire. But the most modest bibliophile, by the pursuit of one special subject, may get together a collection valuable for other reasons. I do not know that I deserve so ambitious a name as bibliophile, but I have no doubt as to the value of the collection of cookery books about which it has been my pleasure and privilege to write. I admit that to the moneyed book-hunter, though he would envy me a few of my volumes, a great number, from his point of view, might seem poor trash. Nor do I claim for my collection completeness. I would not be so foolish with those two thousand five hundred entries in M. Vicaire's Bibliography forever haunting me as a reproach. But then, M. Vicaire does not own the two thousand five hundred books, and I very much doubt whether any one individual ever will. The collector is but mortal. All I claim is that my collection has grown to respectable and, I believe, unrivaled proportions, and that the number of books in it, and the countries and centuries they represent lend them as a series the importance which it would be absurd to attribute to each taken separately.

As for the subject, mine first by chance and now by preference, it needs no apology. Everybody eats and everybody should enjoy eating. The old asceticism that held pleasure in food to be gluttony, and consequently one of the seven deadly sins, has all but disappeared. Even Woman has thrown off the traditional shackles and is no longer ashamed of an honest appetite. It is too late now for the novelist, however romantic, to carry her through the serious crisis of her life, with Fielding's Sophia, on “a little sack-whey made very small and thin.” The new generation believes with Brillat-Savarin that love of good living is by no means a blemish in woman, though, perhaps, as yet, not everyone would go to his lengths and believe that a pretty woman is never prettier than when at table. In one way, something of the old prejudice lingers. It is still considered demoralizing, or, at least, “bad form” to think much about food and drink. But this is a mistake. It was when men and women began to think about eating that they developed it into the Fine Art it ought to be. Sounds might have remained mere noise but for the musician, colors mere discord but for the painter J. eating would never have been more than a gross necessity but for the gourmet. “il faut manger avec esprit,” says a French authority, and to do so requires the thought and enthusiasm that the musician or painter gives to his art.

Neither does the study of Gastronomy through the ages call for an explanation. “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” is the fourth in Brillatt-Savarin's list of Fundamental Truths. It would be more to the purpose to explain why the historian and the philosopher have hitherto paid so little heed to the subject. The world still waits for the Carlyle who will write for it a Philosophy of Food. When he comes he will find in my collection the material made to his hand.

But if eating were not an art, if food had not its philosophy, my books would still be amusing, and that is their great recommendation. No black-letter man, nor tall copyist, nor uncut man, nor rough-edge man, nor early English dramatist, nor Elzevirian, nor broadsider, nor pasquinader, nor old brown calf man, nor Grangerite, nor tawny moroccoite, nor gilt topper, nor marbled insider, nor editio princeps man, to borrow Dr. Hill Burton's classification, could get as much genuine amusement out of his books as I do out of mine. Now this amusement, for several reasons, either dwindles, or else changes its character so completely, by the end of the eighteenth century that I have brought the story of my books and the bibliography down to no later date. In the nineteenth century there were, on the one hand, the cookery books, prosaic as primers, that, with their business-like, practical, direct methods, were more useful in the kitchen than entertaining in the library; on the other hand, the books about cookery, so literary in flavor that they were not adapted to the kitchen at all. The new writers, of whom Grimod de la Reynière was the first great master, brought about such a revolution in not only the style, but the very attitude of writers on cookery, that I prefer to consider their work by itself. My study of all these books has made me sufficiently an artist to want to see my own volume as perfectly rounded out. It is my respect for them that shows me the folly of dogmatizing upon the many I do not know at first hand. In the following pages, I do not pretend to rival M. Vicaire or Mr. Hazlitt bibliographically. I have not the temerity to wander further afield than my own collection.

The illustrations speak for themselves. The old title-page always has charm, and, in the cookery book, it has besides a character of its own. It served the author the purpose of the modern tradesman's poster or advertisement until, at times, it seems as if his one object had been to sum up upon it the entire contents of his book. The portraits that appeal as frontispieces are, to me, an endless source of delight. What new dignity a cookery book acquires when a queen or a man of title presides over it! And with what increased deference one reads the receipts of the chef who evidently takes himself as seriously and solemnly as Robert May or E. Kidder! I wish I could give all the portraits. But it would be unfair to my collection if I did not also show some of the amazing allegories which occasionally replaced the portrait as frontispiece, and of which the plates from Les Dons de Comus and Dr. Lister's edition of Apicius Coelius are typical examples. There are, moreover, the illustrations in the text. I should like nothing better than to include the complete series of plates from Scappi's book, for nowhere else that I know of is there so interesting and full an inventory of the kitchen as it was in sixteenth century Italy. The models for the carver, whether of fish, fowl, or fruit, are characteristic, and the one design for setting a table barely does justice to a detail of dining, that, for long, pre-occupied the authorities. The eighteenth century books are full of such plates.

It is impossible, however, to exhaust a collection like mine in a single volume. I can only hope that what illustrations there are, together with my praise, all too feeble, of the irresistible text, will send the curious to the originals. Though, in self-defense, it might be wiser to restrain the ardor of the enthusiast until a few of the more glaring gaps on my shelves have been filled.

  Top of Page
Top of Page
  Home >> Digitized Rare Books >> My Cookery Books
  The Library of Congress >> Researchers
  August 31, 2010
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:  
Ask a Librarian